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Theatremakers: Filter

Published 26 January 2010

When Lyric Hammersmith Artistic Director Sean Holmes describes Filter – the company that all too often is preceded by the laudatory title of ‘groundbreaking theatre company’ – as “a sort of onion”, he couldn’t have explained the company in more succinctly eloquent terms. While it may contradict the terms of grandeur used by journalists in the past to describe the company, this simple and down to earth description is one founders Ollie Dimsdale, Ferdy Roberts and Tim Philips would be far more comfortable accepting.

Comprised of two actors – Dimsdale and Roberts – and one musician – Philips – Filter’s core founding members make for a slightly unusual equation. Music, though undeniably an important tool in theatre, can often feel like an afterthought on stage, there simply to compliment the dialogue and physical actions, to help the actors do their job better and the audience to gauge the right response. If someone asked you to describe the music used in a play still fresh in your mind, no matter how much of a music lover you were, you may not be able to recall whether the background whispers of generic love songs had been carrying the emotion along, or if Elgar strings had created the ambiance.

This is where Filter differs so massively from numerous other UK theatre companies working today. With Philips – a recording artist and composer – at the helm of the company, music becomes as inherent to their productions as the script, actors and set. Sound becomes a part of the dialogue itself rather than an accompaniment, whether it is a Belle And Sebastian song blasted out during a set change, the deafening sound of a kettle boiling to represent a storm, or a scratchy wireless radio broadcasting news in Illyria. Sound engineers and mixing decks are as obvious on stage as the lead protagonists, the company never feeling the need to make them blend seamlessly into the background.

“We always had a desire to look at themes and look at plays and to find the language between sound and the actor, essentially.”

Having met at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, frustrated by the clear division between the two schools of students, the three found in each other a meeting of minds as they tried to develop and understand the relationship between sound and the actor on stage, as Dimsdale explains: “Whenever we had a chance we would gather, along with a wider circle of musicians and actors, to find ways that the two of them could create together. Essentially the courses were weirdly mutually exclusive because in the music side of things they want to keep things really purist and the acting side of things they really just want the actors to concentrate on the acting and not worry about the devising as much. We always had a desire to look at themes and look at plays and to find the language between sound and the actor, essentially.”

The three won the Deutsche Bank’s Pyramid Award which allowed them to set up a name and start a company in 2002. This is where the onion effect begins to become clear. Although the three are at the very heart of the company, there are numerous layers that make the company the collective Dimsdale explains it is: “Along the way, myself and Ferdy and Tim have always been the main three that have been around. We loosely call ourselves a collective but essentially it’s the three of us who won it [the Pyramid Award], but without regular sound designers, and without regular designers and technicians and stage managers, the whole thing wouldn’t be as coherent a collaboration as it is.”

“I feel we have gratefully attached ourselves to various theatres along the way as a means to get our work out there and thank God for them really.”

 

This collaboration has stretched far beyond their now extended Filter family to involve projects with respected industry heavyweights the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company and Lyric Hammersmith – some devised pieces, others adaptations of classical texts. However Filter’s first production, Faster – a devised piece Lyn Gardner of The Guardian called “The most astonishingly confident debut show I have seen in a long time” – was staged at Battersea Arts Centre, a South London alternative arts venue which Dimsdale credits as “seriously helpful” for its early belief in the company, offering them a space to work and a small amount of money that enabled them to get off the ground. However, having never received any regular funding from the Arts Council, the company members were aware they needed to somehow be able to finance their ideas and keep their collective above water. The solution to take work from established theatre companies was beneficial in two ways: “It’s difficult enough to even survive on the sort of money theatre pays these days and that’s exactly where the RSC came about and the National Theatre.” says Dimsdale. “You’re offered to do a production and you really don’t say no because you can’t afford not to. But at the same time I think we look at these bigger institutions as a means by which to do some genuinely interesting collaborations; sometimes they work out incredibly well and sometimes you find out various things have got to be compromised on, because you have a theatre company and you have a big institution and you have to find the middle ground of exactly what the production’s going to be. I feel we have gratefully attached ourselves to various theatres along the way as a means to get our work out there and thank God for them really.”

“One of the things I think about Filter, Twelfth Night in particular, was that it was almost complete nonsense!”

 

Filter’s first collaboration was with the RSC, creating a dynamic and highly unconventional version of Twelfth Night with director Holmes – who also directed The Caucasian Chalk Circle and is currently directing their production of Three Sisters – for the company. Radically cut down to 90 minutes with few actors and filled with jam sessions, drunken karaoke, a Malvolio (played by Roberts) who could give Iggy Pop a run for his money and a Toby Belch (Dimsdale) who was happy to indulge in tequila shots with the first row, the radical interpretation still evoked the spirit of Shakespeare, who as far as I know, never stipulated pizza be ordered for the audience every night of the show: Holmes explains: “One of the things I think about Filter, Twelfth Night in particular, was that it was almost complete nonsense! Because we were so extreme with what we did to it, in terms of chopping it down and no set, no costumes, not enough actors, taking liberties left, right and centre, but somehow it worked because it released the spirit of the play.”

This way of creating theatre was completely new to Holmes, as it must be to many working with Filter for the first time. The company do not believe in textual analysis, as many other directors would, preferring instead to enter the project with what Dimsdale describes as “an instinctive gut rehearsal period”, not worrying about reading footnotes or what academic papers might say about the play.

The collaboration between Holmes and Filter came about as a result of the director having worked with Roberts as an actor for his own projects and in turn becoming interested in Roberts’s company and the unique way in which they worked: “They asked me if I’d maybe come in and throw an eye over something they were doing,” says Holmes, “and I said ‘Well I’d really like to learn through working in a different way, so why don’t we try and do a workshop together.’ So I went down to the National Studio and they very kindly gave us three weeks in one of their rooms. What was brilliant for me during that time, as a director who tended to work in a traditional way, was there was a whole different approach. Particularly the whole way they use sound and music and all of that being in the room and the idea that everybody has a say and everybody’s ideas being equal. For me it was that thing about being a ‘skill’ in the room, as opposed to having to run the whole thing, as a director normally does.”

This, Dimsdale explains, was something of a liberation for the director: “He sort of revolutionised his own thinking about the creation of theatre, in so far as normally he would just be a director and whatever he said essentially went, but inside the room here he felt as if he was just another skill inside the room, and so for long periods he would just let us run things, or he would set us a little task now and again and we would go off for 45 minutes and find ways to do this and come back and present and talk about them and then we’d go off and do another bit. So it felt like it was such a relief to not have to know the answer to every single question immediately, as many directors feel pressurised to do. He felt like the whole process could happen organically and collectively.”

“The thing I’m most interested in from working with them is the way it seems to give a freedom to actors”

 

It is no coincidence both Dimsdale and Holmes use the word ‘skill’. Talking to Dimsdale about the company’s philosophy, it is clear that this belief that everyone in the room is a separate skill, each of equal importance to one another, is a crucial part of Filter’s collective. Whilst the final decision lies with the three founding members, everyone in a Filter rehearsal room, from the actors to the technicians, are expected to contribute and be a part of the collective, taking advantage of all the knowledge available in the room, much like the trio’s desire at college to pick each other’s brains and understand each other’s talents. As Holmes explains, this includes massive crossover between the actors and musicians: “The thing I’m most interested in from working with them is the way it seems to give a freedom to actors, and a bravery and an openness which seems right for all shows” says Holmes.

It is easy to see why working with such an inclusive and open company must be an incredibly attractive prospect to actors and musicians, however Dimsdale is clear that inevitably arguments and debates are also a part of the process: “At times we’re [Roberts, Philips and Dimsdale] singing from the same hymn sheet, and then we’re arguing about form because we fundamentally disagree about the form of a particular piece because it reflects our own instinctive needs for a particular show.”

“We always want to kill each other occasionally and I think that’s quite healthy.”

 

Holmes, too, talks about the flip side to working with such a collaborative company when asked if their way of working is an inspiration: “I think they are, and an annoyance! We always want to kill each other occasionally and I think that’s quite healthy. I think it’s a difficult thing, it’s not always easy to have the balance between, I’m the director in the room but they’re the company, and one of them is acting in it, one of them is also there watching it as an associate director and sometimes other actors are like ‘oh shut up!’ because there’s so many voices in the room, but you need that somehow, that chemical reaction, it can be very useful.”  This idea is clearly vital to Filter’s process of exploration during the rehearsal period as Dimsdale explains: “There is a healthy antagonism that exists between Filter and Sean that is a sort of a challenge, we challenge each other, we question decisions constantly. At times it can be very frustrating and it can stop the flow, but it’s a necessary antagonism. Antagonism is probably the wrong word because it seems to align itself with conflict. Conflict is a better word! A healthy, complicit conflict. Without that you serve up something that hasn’t really been explored, hasn’t been looked at.”

Filter’s relationship with Holmes is clearly of massive importance to the company. Although they have an upcoming production for the RSC with David Farr, Silence, which will come to fruition in March, Holmes is the only other director they have worked with so extensively. As much as the director has clearly been inspired by Filter’s free and slightly chaotic way of working, the company also attribute its choice of work to Holmes: “If it were not for Sean we probably wouldn’t have done the three classic texts we’re doing,” says Dimsdale, “His background is very sort of text based director and he always wanted to do a Shakespeare, a Chekhov, a Brecht. And he saw that the Filter method, the sound design and the text and marrying of the two would be beautifully served to try and unlock a few of the classic plays and that’s what we’re trying to continue to do.”  While Twelfth Night was such a radical, modern take on Shakespeare, the famously strict Brecht estate meant that not a single word could be changed from the Frank McGuinness version of Caucasian Chalk Circle they chose in 2007. However, the sheer genius of the playwright’s work had an unexpected effect on the company as Dimsdale explains: “…at first we though ‘Oh God how are we going to do this because we want to put our own mark on it and we want to be able to explode it’. But eventually the very fact we couldn’t change a word of it was oddly freeing. It’s exactly the same with Three Sisters; we’re not changing a word of it really because it just reads like such a beautifully precise, detailed musical score, so we don’t feel trapped like that at all. When you are working with seriously good stuff it doesn’t matter. I’m not sure what we would be able to do with a not so great a dramatist.”

Filter’s current project Three Sisters is playing at the Lyric Hammersmith, where Holmes is artistic director and Roberts Associate Artist. Those who are expecting Chekhov to have had the full Twelfth Night makeover are in for a shock if Holmes’s description of what to expect is accurate: “I think just to expect Chekhov, because I think he’s a really radical, exciting dramatist to understand how weird, strange and absurd human beings are. We’ve got a full cast, everyone’s telling the story as characters, it’s not as deconstructed as maybe Twelfth Night was.”

But this is perhaps why Filter is so exciting and could be considered ‘groundbreaking’. By the trio’s own admission they will never be innovative for the sake of being innovative; they can equally chop up Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to evoke the spirit of a party, but are not afraid to leave Chekhov well alone, stripped back perhaps in costume and context, but allowing the story to set its own sober mood. While they revolutionise classics, they are also respectful to the original text and realise that sometimes the most effective course of action is the simplest.

When I ask Dimsdale at the end of the conversation why they made the decision to call the company Filter, it comes as no surprise that the decision wasn’t an easy one: “We sat down one day and were talking for hours and hours and hours about different names and scrawled things down on bits of paper and we just liked Filter. I could lie to you to say it’s about either you put loads of ideas in a filter and the good ones come through and leave the bad ones behind or vice versa, the bad ones go through and we retain the good ones, but I would be talking with the benefit of hindsight.” A happy and incredibly fitting accident for a company where no small detail seems accidental, no moment or sound in a production, however small, is any less important than the next.

CM

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